Striking Dagenham Ford Machinists
Striking Dagenham Ford Machinists

Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

Working alongside IWD’s 2020 theme #EachForEqual – today I will celebrate women’s achievements, but more specifically, local women’s achievements.

Barking and Dagenham’s contribution to the feminist movement is known worldwide, and started way before the days of the Ford Factory Workers.

Born in Spitalfields, feminism pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft moved to a farm near the Whalebone junction at Chadwell Heath aged five, before relocating to ‘a convenient house behind the town of Barking’ in 1765.

Wollstonecraft is best known for writing ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ earned Mary the title of ‘the mother of feminism.’ Her book has gone on to sell thousands of thousands of copies and can be found in any major bookstore.

Dame Vera Margaret Lynn is an English singer of traditional popular music, songwriter and actress, whose musical recordings and performances were enormously popular during the Second World War.

She is widely known as “the Forces’ Sweetheart” for giving outdoor concerts for the troops in Egypt, India, and Burma during the war as part of Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).

Vera Lynn was born in East Ham, but for a period of time lived in Dagenham. She has devoted much time and energy to charity work connected with ex-servicemen, disabled children, and breast cancer. She is held in great affection by veterans of the Second World War and in 2000 was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.

The Ford Sewing Machinists Strike, led by Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass, began on 7 June 1968, when women sewing machinists at Ford Motor Company Limited’s Dagenham plant in London walked out, followed later by the machinists at Ford’s Halewood Body & Assembly plant. The women made car seat covers and as stock ran out the strike eventually resulted in a halt to all car production.

The Dagenham sewing machinists walked out when they were informed that their jobs were graded in Category B (less skilled production jobs), instead of Category C (more skilled production jobs), and that they would be paid 15% less than the full B rate received by men. At the time it was common practice for companies to pay women less than men, irrespective of the skills involved.

Following the intervention of Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in Harold Wilson’s government, the strike ended three weeks after it began, as a result of a deal that immediately increased their rate of pay to 8% below that of men, rising to the full category B rate the following year. Women were only regraded into Category C following a further six-week strike in 1984.

The movement ultimately resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which came into force in 1975 and which did, for the first time, aim to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in Britain in terms of pay and conditions of employment. Once the UK joined the European Union in 1973, it also became subject to Article 119 of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which specified that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.

The Dagenham Ford Sewing Machinists are a huge inspiration of mine. They are part of the reason I became involved in politics, after being raised by a trade unionist mother who taught me all about them as I was growing up. To have this kind of history on our doorstep is wonderful. I am proud to be a woman born and raised in Dagenham, knowing that these strong inspirational women created history here.

On International Women’s Day 2020 I stand alongside every other woman involved in the #EachForEqual campaign. We will challenge gender stereotypes and bias. We will help forge a gender equal world. And we will celebrate women’s achievements.

I am proud to be the new Women’s Officer for Dagenham and Rainham CLP and look forward to the year ahead, celebrating and empowering women.

Fay Hough

Women’s Officer – Dagenham and Rainham CLP

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